‘Words Before Dawn’
A collection of poems by William Wenthe.
by Sally Logue Post
William Wenthe is more than a poet or a professor–he is an artist. In his latest collection of poetry, “Words Before Dawn,” Wenthe takes the reader on a journey as he slowly paints his canvas with each poem, using different brushes and hues to tell the story and transport the reader with each brush stroke.
The collection, published by LSU Press, has no single inspiration, but comes from a variety of events as well as his travels. From the grackles that inhabit the Texas Tech campus, where Wenthe is a professor of English, to the street markets of Paris and the birth of his daughter, he is looking for connections.
“The way you make a collection of poems is to look at all the poems you have written, and you see what kind of echoes they have between them,” he said. “You ask what kind of deeper theme underlies various poems. In this book, my main concern is the question of how words represent reality or how they distort reality.”
“Words Before Dawn” is Wenthe’s third book of poetry. Much of his work draws from nature, especially birds.
“I do write about birds often, but it’s not so much that birds are the subject as they are a way of seeing,” he said. “I’ve been fascinated with birds for as long as I can remember. It’s kind of my way of looking at the world.”
A notable example is the poem “Poorwill.” The inspiration was a bird flying around the courtyard of the Texas Tech English Building, where Wenthe teaches. He saw a poorwill, a bird of the nightjar family, like a whippoorwill.
“The birds are mostly nocturnal birds, and one, I guess in the course of migration, was in the courtyard fluttering around looking very frightened, looking very beautiful,” he said. “They have a very curious moth-like flight. The poem tells what I saw and my not being able to process what I saw. It’s written in two kind of breathless sentences to try to give the sense of, well, the dizzying effect of seeing this bird.”
Texas Tech professor and author William Wenthe reads the poem “Reading” from his book “Words Before Dawn.”
About the Author
The book contains poems drawn from his travels in Paris, Budapest and Israel. Also the birth of his daughter in 2007 is the thread of another sequence of poems.
“That sort of changed my life, it changed my relationship to everything, to the whole world I live in,” he said.
The Writing Process
For Wenthe, the process of writing is a slow one. He has a favorite desk and lamp, uses a fountain pen, and is partial to writing in laboratory notebooks.
“I’m kind of ritualistic about it,” he said. “My process is a slow one. I’m sort of like a Crock-Pot where images, feelings and ideas are put together, and it takes a while for them to sort of break down and let the flavor of one influence another. It’s slow, and it’s patient, and it’s not very exciting to watch–or to talk about.”
It is the process that he finds is one of the hardest to teach his creative writing students. For him, the ideal process is finding a predictable time to write.
“One of the things that I had to learn as a process of maturing as a writer was the idea that you can make writing happen,” he said. “The first step is just to be there and to wait and to give it that time and attention. It’s hard to convince students that the waiting is work and is necessary. That you have to do that before you get to the next session when things are going to start to happen.”
Works of Art
Wenthe’s next project is a series of poems about the painter James McNeill Whistler. He’s been interested in Whistler for a long time, particularly his paintings called “Nocturnes,” done around 1870 in London.
“They’re paintings of the Thames River and the London cityscape at evening, when the interplay of light and shadow is very gorgeously balanced,” he said.
Wenthe is of two minds about Whistler. While he admires the painter’s dedication and his refusal to compromise on his work, at the same time, Wenthe says Whistler hurt some people close to him through his dedication to his art.
“I’m intrigued by this person and his artwork,” he said. “It’s somehow connected with me in various ways. The poems I’m writing now are dialogues with him and his artwork. It has taken me a long time, and I’m discovering, exploring new kinds of territory.”
Wenthe’s other books are “Not Till We Are Lost,” published by LSU Press in 2004, and “Birds of Hoboken,” published by Orchises Press in 1995 and reprinted 2003. The New Jersey native earned a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. He has taught creative writing and 20th century poetry at Texas Tech University since 1992.
He has received poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts. He is widely published in literary journals and has won the Natalie Ornish Poetry Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Everett Southwest Literary Award, and two Pushcart Prizes.
Sally Logue Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.